C.J. Stroud outduels Joe Burrow in an instant classic that could be the first of many

In the first meeting of what could be a defining QB battle of the 2020s, Stroud vs. Burrow delivered.

You’ve got to be a special kind of quarterback to elbow your way into the logjam of greatness atop the AFC. Just 10 games into his pro career, C.J. Stroud appears up to the challenge.

Stroud and the Texans traveled to Cincinnati to face the Bengals in a game that Cincy fans probably pegged as a certain W right up until the past few weeks. But Stroud delivered a magnificent performance, outplaying Joe Burrow and Cincinnati to guide Houston to a winning field goal drive and a 30-27 victory.

In terms of meaningful hype, quarterback “head to head” battles rank somewhere between “the Pro Bowl is a legitimate game” and “the NFL Draft’s Day 3 is necessary viewing.” Quarterbacks never share the field at the same time. Even the most notable matchups — think the instant-classic “13 seconds” Chiefs-Bills playoff game — are less face-to-face duel and more “anything you can do, I can do better.”

By that standard, then, Stroud saw Burrow’s brilliance and raised. Burrow started the day’s scoring with a beautiful 32-yard touch pass right into the hands of Trenton Irwin:

Stroud and the Texans responded by hanging 20 unanswered on the Bengals, stunning the Cincinnati crowd into silence. Fans saw Stroud do this kind of thing before — he played his college ball at a local state university 100 miles or so up the road — but to see him do it as an NFL rookie is something else entirely.

Once a quarterback reaches a certain level, mere victories and statistics cease to matter. The very best in the game aren’t judged on yardage or completions, but on playoff performance and rings. Nobody cares what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s record is against one another. (Brady won nine of 12 regular-season games, Peyton won three of five in the playoffs.) What matters is the number of Lombardis, and Brady owns that fight 7-2, and 4-2 when both were active.

It’s far too early to start judging Stroud by that standard; we probably ought to wait until at least one Super Bowl even takes place during his career. But Burrow is edging into that territory — he’s already appeared in one Super Bowl and two conference championships in his first three seasons.

Burrow remains the NFL’s premier magician, able to scramble his way out of trouble and create brilliance out of madness. Witness, for instance, his touchdown in the waning seconds of the third quarter Sunday, when he flicked his wrist and tossed the ball about 50 yards in the air to find Ja’Marr Chase for a 64-yard score.

And Stroud still has some rookie issues to work out. With less than four minutes left in the game and facing third-and-2, Stroud threw an interception — just his second of the entire year — that the Bengals turned into a touchdown to close the gap to three points. The Bengals forced a punt, and in the final play before the two-minute warning, Burrow hit Tyler Boyd for a breakaway 64-yard gain. Starting at the Texans' 7, the Bengals managed only a tying field goal.

C.J. Stroud outdueled Joe Burrow and further cemented himself among the AFC's crowded field of top-end quarterbacks. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
C.J. Stroud outdueled Joe Burrow and further cemented himself among the AFC's crowded field of top-end quarterbacks. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

That gave Stroud 93 seconds to get the Texans into field-goal range, and he needed only 88 of them. Stroud orchestrated a six-play, 55-yard drive, with passes accounting for 51 of those yards, that gave newcomer Matt Ammendola 38 yards to deliver the winning kick.

“I just went to [head coach] DeMeco [Ryans] and let him know, ‘Man, I got you. We’re going to win this game,’" Stroud said afterward. "He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I trust you.’”

Stroud finished with 356 yards passing on 23 of 39 attempts, with one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and one interception. But the most important number of the afternoon is five, as in the number of wins the Texans now have — quite an improvement on their three-win 2023.

If Stroud isn't yet in the MVP conversation, he's getting close. His 2,626 passing yards this season are the third-most through a rookie's first nine starts in NFL history, trailing only Justin Herbert (2,699 in 2020) and Andrew Luck (2,631 in 2012), per ESPN Stats & Info. More significantly, for history's sake, the Texans under Stroud are now 4-1 against winning teams this season.

There aren't many marquee quarterbacks left on Houston's 2023 slate, at least not during the regular season. Stroud almost certainly will be the better quarterback in almost every Texans game from here on out, a stunning turn for a rookie. But it's the truth — the question isn't whether Stroud belongs among the game's best quarterbacks. The only question is how high he is on the list.